[Y]ou’re on bean duty

The sincere smile on the face of the lady that provided me with those instructions had blinded me momentarily, and all I could get out was “sure thing”, a reciprocal smile of my own, and a nod.

Bean Duty.

The words echoed.

Bean duty.

Gulp.

Now, before I get to much further along here, please understand that the temporary lump in my throat and trepidation had absolutely nothing to do with the task itself, nor the folks that would be on the receiving end of my trusty ladle.  That would have been much easier to justify.

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My girlfriend and I had been introduced to Mary’s Kitchen a little over a year ago and, as has happened much more frequently than one would hope, it was in the wake of a family tragedy.  Picking up the pieces in March of 2012, it was learned that Mary’s Kitchen had been of great help—physically and spiritually—to her brother; a struggling young man who had lost his way and now sits among the angels.

We had learned that Mary’s Kitchen was always in need of volunteers to help out, and could think of no better way of honoring her brother than to ‘give back’…unfortunately, with both of us working full time, “life got in the way” as they say, and every time we tried to fit in a visit, something came up. Finally, after a year, we applied an idea that has helped in several other areas:  just do it….put it on the calendar and make it happen.  So this past Saturday, we did just that, and arrived at Mary’s Kitchen bright and early for the breakfast program.

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A little back-story will make a lot more sense of this story going forward, and will explain a lot in regards to my own preconceived notions, among other things.  I spent ten years in law enforcement, working some of the toughest streets in southern California.  During that time, I cannot think of a single encounter with a homeless or otherwise underprivileged individual that was a positive one.  Now, please do not interpret that statement as meaning I had any contempt, disdain, or any other intrinsically negative regard for them…this is strictly a statement of fact, of observation.  Every call for service, every proactive and reactive contact with these folks, ended up badly, one way or the other.

Jump forward 20 years.  Getting older, preconceived notions about the underprivileged slipping away as slowly and steadily as the hair on my head, I get to feeling charitable a few months ago.  We had just come from a nice dinner, leftovers in one of those Styrofoam clamshell ‘to go’ boxes, and I saw a fellow bundled up in the cold, sitting on a concrete bench in a shopping center, feet propped up on his shopping cart.  “Stop the car for a sec honey…” I said, and when she did, I got out, approached the middle-aged man, and extended the container of food.  “Here you go, bud” I said.  He looked up at me, so I knew he was awake, but he remained silent.  With nothing to draw upon in regards to what that meant, I simply set the food down on the bench next to him and walked back toward the car.  It was the sound of the half piece of steak whizzing past my ear that caught my attention first…I turned around, only to see the distance between he and I littered with broccoli and remnants of baked potato, the now-weightless container catching a breeze across the parking lot.

Needless to say, I resisted my “man instincts”, and we just drove away.  But the motivation to keep trying to help was, albeit temporary, derailed.

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The line was already forming outside the gates when we arrived at Mary’s Kitchen a good two hours before food would be served.  Guests awaited in all shapes and sizes.  Some with shopping carts, a few on bicycles.  Some were resting on the grassy mounds.  Many were stereotypical, yet there were an equal number of people that you would never know were in need if you were to run into them on the street (I would later find out that this, as well, was thanks to Mary’s Kitchen…clothing, showers, and personal hygiene products were distributed as well as food).  We parked in the fairly crowded parking lot and made our way to the building.

After having met the young man that had been responsible for coordinating with us via email, we were introduced around, and what a fine crop of people.  A group as diverse as the one about to be served….even one entire family that made volunteer service a monthly planned activity.

No time was wasted; after taking a moment to absorb and smile at the picture on the wall of an adorable, elderly woman we deduced was ‘Mary’, the facility’s namesake, we were each put to work in different directions, assisting whoever needed an extra pair of hands at any given moment.  I started washing potatoes and cutting them, then passing them down the line to the men that were dicing them, while my lovely girlfriend was set to cracking enough eggs to make the Easter Bunny smile.  We were happy to be there, and it was obvious that everyone else there was, too.  Conversations filled the air and there was a noticeable excitement as the minutes ticked away toward the 9:30 am target of serving the meals.  Peelers were peeling, fryers were frying, scramblers were scrambling.  And probably the most impressive common thread was quality; nothing was spared, cut short, or otherwise compromised…I was reminded more of being in the family kitchen at Thanksgiving time than a well-endowed commercial kitchen preparing to feed masses that much of society had forgotten about.

After rounds of preparatory tasks that included mixing up Tang drink (the powder smell and ‘poof’ took me back to my childhood for a moment), and team dynamic reaching its crescendo, it was announced that we were ready right on time—9:30 straight up—and it was show time.

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“You’re on bean duty.”

So the preparation work was just the beginning, and I was being invited to assist in the serving of the meal.  This is a good time to explain my comments from the opening paragraph.

The task itself was not difficult at all.  In fact, it was probably one of the easiest.  I would not need to worry about portion judgment, as the ladle was the perfect size for the bowls I would serve in.  And we had set aside the entire morning, so time was not an issue.  Subconsciously, and in an instant, I realized I would be looking straight into the eyes of individuals that I felt ill equipped to interact with.  It bears repeating that the sentiment had nothing to do with being afraid of these folks, or “looking down my nose” at them in any way.  It was the range of emotions I was guaranteed to file through….sympathy, empathy, sadness….wondering what circumstances had led each one to this place, this day.  What had they been through?  Was this need a result of poor life choices, or outside convergence of circumstances over which they had no control?  Would I be able to resist my own instinctual reaction of trying to figure that out?  Would I feel guilt for having a happy home and plenty to eat?  Those wheels turned inexorably as I donned an apron, prayed silently for clarity, and made my way to the line.

One b y one, person by person, my fears dissolved like the Tang did when it hit the water.  I had been afraid that my knee-jerk reaction would be to assess each individual, figure out what led them there, and decide whether or not they deserved what they were to receive.  That didn’t happen.  To the contrary, it became clearer than ever that the only thing that mattered in that moment WAS that moment, nothing earlier….that was God’s arena.  The joy coming from the servers on either side of me (eggs to the left, potatoes to the right) was infectious, and it wasn’t long before I found myself loosening up and interacting as I could for the five or so seconds I had with each one.  And it did not take long for me to realize that these people—God’s people—were not only smart, witty, hopeful, in better moods than I am a good portion of the time….but they had something I want….that I NEED….. as much as they wanted and needed the contents of the serving pans we had in front of us.  GRATITUDE.  Gratitude with a large helping of humility on the side.

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I feel quite comfortable, at this point, in saying that I got far and away more out of that morning at Mary’s Kitchen than any one of the guests….perhaps more than all of them combined.  Value that comes in the form of lessons learned, perspective, weights of outside forces lifted.  I’m less inclined now to become annoyed when I struggle to find room to put something away at home that creates clutter in small spaces.  Able to reject the frustration at clothes that used to fit better than they do now, and lofty expectations of customer service everywhere I go.  And the blessing of being able to put what now seem to be insignificant aggravations of life, work, and everything else into perspective.

If I knew what my audience would be here, who would be reading this, I’d have a better chance of adding a conclusion that made sense.  Thing is, I just felt the call to put these thoughts and feelings in writing.  Could be for the incredible, gracious staff that we had the good fortune of crossing paths with at Mary’s Kitchen.  Might find its way into the hands of a few of the guests somehow.  Perhaps only God and my guardian angels, reading over my shoulder as I type. Having said that, my conclusion will be limited to the few words that apply unconditionally, regardless of who reads this:

Thank you and God Bless.